Friday, September 02, 2011 5:04 PM
“The main thing would be films: riveting, fascinating, beautiful, controversial. For one afternoon a week, we would watch great movies, then talk about them. I’m hypnotized by movies, utterly rapt, even when they are bad. I would allow myself to project this far, to imagine that at least some of the students are like me, happy to escape for a few hours from their current situation.”
So goes Ann Snitow’s terrific essay in Dissent (Summer 2011), about her opportunity to teach 14 films to medium-security prisoners—men who have committed armed robbery or murder, but who were carefully selected by the college selection board from the penitentiary’s 900-some inmates as the most cooperative and promising:
The room is much too bright to show films. (“Can I darken the room?” “Of course not!” “Can I cluster the chairs close together around the monitor?” “Of course not!”)[…]
The twelve men filter in. As far as I can tell, the class is eleven African Americans and one Hispanic, ranging in age from thirty to fifty. They are friendly, a few elaborately polite and happy to help sort out the mess, set up chairs. They are used to this level of chaos, both patient and gracious.
Snitow, a longtime feminist activist, tailors the course around the themes of childhood, manhood, and womanhood. Crooklyn, The Hurt Locker, and Thelma & Louise make it into the final cut, along with other provocative films addressing everything from immigration and abortion to nostalgia and joy. The students ask and explore compelling questions: Is it OK to break the law to do the right thing? Is part of the dream of heroism making your own rules? Is violence human nature? Does heroism look different when women do it?
Snitow reveals the major missteps she makes—like when she calls out a student publicly for having plagiarized and then realizes she may be jeopardizing his upcoming parole—as well as her true victories. A Harvey Milk documentary leads to a heated discussion of the word faggot, after which one of the students—“the dignified and usually silent David”—stops by privately to comment on Snitow showing the film: “I’m gay and you can see what hell it is in here. Thank you.”
Ultimately, Snitow hopes that the films will chip away at the hard-edged visions her students have formed of what it is to be a man:
I know that all this [class discussion] is unlikely to make a dent in the essentialist views of manhood and womanhood that often seem to prevail in the room. But these are belief systems with big cracks in them. Elijah, Harry, David, and Phillip have been working on themselves for a long time, self-consciously cultivating inner calm and wisdom. A different idea about manhood might be a lifeline. Who knows? Since they are near the end of their terms, the question of how to be a free adult outside (and how to avoid returning here) is in the air every minute. In a long teaching life, I have rarely encountered students with such intense motivation.
Image by daniellekellogg,
licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, June 03, 2010 11:10 AM
The Los Angeles Times’ book blog Jacket Copy has an update on the imprisonment of Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo:
On Christmas Day last year, Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his part in creating Charter 08, a document calling for greater freedoms and democratic reforms in China. On Tuesday, the international human rights and literary organization PEN announced that it has learned that Liu Xiaobo has been moved from a detention center in Beijing to Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning.
(Thanks, The Rumpus.)
Source: Jacket Copy
Image by waffler, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 17, 2009 11:58 AM
You're a foreign journalist locked up in a notorious Iranian prison facing espionage charges, how do you pass the time? You ask your interrogators for their reading suggestions, of course! That's what Iason Athanasiadis did, and now that he's back on the outside he's assembled a list of his interrogators' recommendations and published them at Global Post. Here's an excerpt:
Westoxification, Jalal al-e Ahmad, 1962: A recurring point of reference for my jailers, this is the pre-eminent philosophical work on which the cultural wars that followed the Iranian Revolution were conducted.
The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Frances Stonor Saunders: Highly recommended by my interrogators as the definitive account of how the West funded leftist and right-wing intellectuals during the Cold War seeking to dissuade them from succumbing to the lure of Communism.
Death Plus Ten Years, Roger Cooper, 1995: Highly recommended by one of my interrogators, this is a memoir by a British man convicted of espionage in Iran in the 1980s who spent more than five years in jail and was exchanged for a number of Iranian prisoners with the British government. My interrogator told me that after reading it he was convinced Cooper had been a spy “because he exhibited an intelligence mentality.” He did not delve further into what is an “intelligence mentality,” presumably because he sought to establish the same parameter with me.
A Man, Oriana Fallaci, 1981: At the conclusion of my interrogation, I was told that I should not be so upset that it had dragged on for three weeks. “You shouldn’t be so negative about your experience,” the senior interrogator advised me. “Look at Oriana Fallaci, she spent so much time in prison. It formed her.”
Source: Global Post
Image by Biggunben, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, February 08, 2008 2:40 PM
“Resentment is like a glass of poison that you drink; then you sit down and wait for your enemy to die.” It’s a well-known saying, its truth self-evident. But forgiveness is difficult, and understanding its importance doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
Twenty years after her mother’s murder, Stephanie Cassatly wasn’t particularly interested in forgiving the man responsible, as she recounts in the Fall 2007 issue of the nonfiction journal Fourth Genre (essay not available online). She writes that “I had no interest in having a positive impact on a cold-blooded murderer. In fact, I strongly supported the death penalty, silently bitter that my mother’s killer had only received a life sentence.”
Cassatly harbored that resentment until a chance encounter provoked her to start thinking about the man who killed her mother. She spent a year obsessively learning more about him, until she finally called the chaplain’s office at his penitentiary. The chaplain asks is she wants him to serve as a mediator. Here’s what follows:
“Yes, I think I would,” I said, surprisingly sure of myself. I stood up and began pacing.
“And how shall we do this?” he asked more pointedly. “Would you like me to deliver a letter for you?” I felt my stomach tighten at the though of something so tangible between us, as if her killer could touch me through a piece of paper. Father Damereaux interpreted my silence. “Or perhaps you can simple tell me what to say, and I’ll personally deliver the message to him.” My stomach relaxed slightly.
“Yes. Maybe that would be better,” I agreed.
“I think it would be best if you were very specific as to what I should say. For instance--”
But I interrupted him with a burst of unexpected clarity. “How about if you say, ‘The daughter of the woman you killed in 1980 wishes to forgive you. Do you have anything you want to say in return?’” It sounded so simple and to the point. He repeated it back to me. “That’s it,” I said.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007 1:36 PM
Last week the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced that incarceration remains a thriving growth industry in the United States. According to the agency (pdf), by the end of 2006, 1 in 31 American adults were under penal supervision—either in prisons or jails, or on probation or parole. Then, this week, the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Sentencing Commission took aim at the disproportionately harsh sentences meted out for crack-cocaine offenses, suggesting that Americans and their democratic institutions might finally be waking up to the gross racial disparities haunting our prison system.
That’s all good news, but there’s still much work to be done, especially on the state level, where most of the country’s inmates originate. As Glenn C. Loury reports in “America Incarcerated” (reprinted from the Boston Review in our Nov.-Dec. issue):
One-third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. The other two-thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.
If our criminal justice system is to resurrect its credibility, states will have to take the feds’ cue and shed their status as warehousers of low-level offenders of color.
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